Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Day in the Life of Houston's Murder by the Book

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Last summer I had the honor of appearing at beloved mystery book shop, Murder by the Book, in Houston, Texas, to promote THE PRIME MINISTER'S SECRET AGENT and talk about historical mysteries. I appeared alongside fabulous New York Times-bestselling authors Lauren Willig and Beatriz Williams. The evening was facilitated by Murder by the Book's publicity manager John Kwiatkowsky and Sally Woods.

Readers, it was heaven. 

What was so wonderful? The books, of course (my credit card took a serious dent), meeting Lauren and Beatriz (I've been a huge fan of their novels for years and it was lovely to meet them in person), and most of all, the staff, who were knowledgeable and professional and fun and funny. Do you ever meet people and just know that you're going to be fast friends? Well, that's what happened to me when I met John and Sally.

We all read mysteries and thrillers, but I thought it would be fun to take a peek "backstage" at a particularly fantastic mystery bookshop — and what happens behind the scenes. John and Sally, take it away!

JOHN and SALLY: Working in a bookstore comes with all the usual challenges of working retail, and throws in challenges of its own. Those challenges can be trying to figure out which blue book a customer saw on the new release table at another bookstore, trying to remember the name of a long out print book, or explaining for the 5th time why you don’t know if a book is available for the Kindle.

It also comes with some pretty special rewards. We have a lot of customers that have moved away from Houston, but always include a trip to the store when they’re back for a visit. We get to meet authors that we love, hand-sell books that we’re excited about, and spend our days surrounded by books.

Each bookstore is different. Working at a Barnes and Noble is different from working at a specialized indie bookstore. (If you want to know what working at big box store like B&N or Borders is like, read Elaine Viets's Murder Between The Covers, she nails it!)

One of the comments we hear all the time is, "I'd love to work in a bookstore and spend all day reading." We laugh, but know that reading is the last thing we get to do when we’re at work. Here’s what a typical day behind the counter looks like...

9:30 a.m. - Get to the store. If last night's event ran long, start the day by putting the store back together. That includes putting away event chairs, picking up stray books that wandered off the shelf, and picking up empty wine glasses left on bookcases. (If it's Tuesday, put out this week's new releases).

9:45 a.m. - Sort books from last night's event and get them ready to mail out.

10:00 a.m. - Open the store.

10:15 p.m. - Answer email, and update the store’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. Add any newly scheduled events to the website, while still helping customers and answering the phone.

11:00 a.m. - Dave, our UPS driver, shows up with 45 boxes of new books. Each book has to be checked in, sorted, and shelved, while still helping customers and answering the phone. If there are any damaged or missing books, they have to be called into the publisher for credit or replacement.

11:45 a.m.: Answer the phone:

Employee: Hello, Murder By The Book!
Customer: Is this homicide?
Employee: No, we're a bookstore.
Customer: I need homicide.
Employee: I think you should hang up and dial 911.

11:52 a.m. - A customer comes in asking for Victoria Holt’s series about a midwife. You realize she’s looking for the series by Victoria Thompson and give her the first in the series.

12:30 p.m. Thirty minutes for lunch

1:15 p.m. - Patrick, our mailman, brings an advanced reading copy that that’s been eagerly awaited. A happy dance ensues.

2:05 p.m. - Check for online and email orders.

Tracy Carlson

3:00 p.m. - Archie, our FedEx driver, shows up with 3 boxes full of special orders. Each book has to be checked in, sorted, and customers need to be contacted to know their books have arrived.

4:00 p.m. - Meet a teenager in town for a lung transplant. His family is in Houston temporarily, and he loves mysteries. Show him some staff favorites, and recommend some great places to visit while in town.

4:45 p.m. - A customer from Shreveport stops by the store on one of her quarterly trips to Houston. After spending 45 minutes helping her pick out titles, she asks for a hug when you carry her bags out to the car for her. Your bookseller heart skips a beat.

5:00 p.m. - If there's an event that evening, put out chairs, set up the signing table, put out wine.

5:45 p.m. - Take Jack Reacher, the store dog, out for a potty break.

6:00 p.m. - Close for the day, unless there’s an event.

If there is an event:

6:10 p.m. - Author arrives. Take them to the back to sign presales (books ordered by people who couldn’t make it to the signing).

6:30 p.m. - Introduce the author to the crowd.  Double check for last minute orders for signed books while trying to pay attention to the author’s talk.

7:15 p.m. - Author talk is winding down, tell the crowd we have time for one more question. When the talk finishes, line customers up so they can get their books signed.

8:00 p.m. - Signing line is finished, take the author to the back to sign books for people that couldn’t make it, and the rest of the store stock. Once the stock is signed, thank the author for coming and put the store back together.

8:30 p.m. - Head home (11 hours after the day started). This is where we actually get our reading done.

As you’ll see, there wasn’t any time for reading. We might get a few minutes to read while we’re on our 30 minute lunch break, but any reading is done once we get home and finally put up our feet at the end of a long day. That book we just recommended? We read it while we were off the clock.

At the end of the day, we all love what we do. No one ever worked at a bookstore to become rich. We do it because we love books, and we love finding the right book for the right reader. And that’s the best perk of this job, having someone come back and tell you they have found a new favorite book or author.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Thank you John and Sally, for taking the time to drop by today and all that you do. (Also — Jack Reacher! He's adorable!) Reds and lovely readers, have you ever been to Murder by the Book? Have you ever worked in a bookstore or wanted to? What does your ideal bookstore have? (Mine has a few cats.... No offense, Jack Reacher.) 

John and Sally will be dropping by to answer all of your questions, even "what's the name of that book, you know — the blue one...."

John Kwiatkowski, Publicity Manager at Murder By The Book since 2010
In previous career incarnations, John has sold model and toy trains, and been a barista.  Prior to joining the Murder By The Book team he managed one of the local chain bookstores.  When his nose isn't in a book he loves going to concerts, seeing musicals, going to Las Vegas, and spending afternoons in Hermann Park.
John's favorite authors include: Arturo Perez-Reverte, Tasha Alexander, Kelley Armstrong, Melissa Marr, Daphne Du Maurier, Wilkie Collins, Jacqueline Sussan, Victoria Laurie, and Louise Penny.
Sally has been in the bookselling biz for almost 20 years.  She comes to MBTB via various Houston indie bookstores.  She did have a life prior to bookstores, but that seems long ago.  She is also somewhat new to the mystery genre and is learning about new authors all the time.
Some her favorite authors include: Stephen King, John Sandford, Dean Koontz, Sue Grafton, Kevin Brockmeier, Dan Chaon, Gillian Flynn, Joyce Carol Oates (especially the short stories), Margaret Atwood, and newly discovered Peter James.  


  1. Alas, I have never been to Murder by the Book [or to Houston] but I really enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at the busy day for the booksellers.
    Even my retired policeman husband chuckled over the caller who mistook the bookshop for the homicide folks!
    Dog, cat . . . either one is good as I like them both . . . but my ideal bookshop has to have lots and lots of books. And maybe a chair for sitting down and reading for a while.
    Thank you to John and Sally for keeping us readers supplied with books . . . .

  2. I've worked in a bookstore and had friends who briefly owned a franchise bookstore--helped them do special events, so I'm familiar with the behind-the-scenes work (and decided lack of reading time!). It seems our local library is having a similar problem--people who want to work at the library because they think they can sit and read all day long!

    Too many favorite bookstores to name--I love a bookstore that invites you to linger--a staff that is helpful, but doesn't mind if you pull an old favorite or a new author from the shelves and read a bit. Comfy chairs. A pot of tea. A fireplace is good, too!

    My first experience of such a bookstore occurred decades ago in Colorado Springs--there was a used bookstore/cafe. Buy a paperback or trade one and get a cup of soup, a sandwich, and relax. Loved it!

  3. Oh, this was just lovely and I enjoyed it very much. OK, I will confess, I've never been to Murder By The Book and I live in Texas. Well, Texas is big, but I live in the Austin area. We hardly ever get to Houston though. I need to start remembering to order a few books from them though. I could do that.

    I laughed and nodded at the day, working with customers, unpacking stock, etc. And the phone calls. I haven't worked in bookstore, but I have worked in a library. Mucho similarities. I can relate to "the blue book", the multitasking, "it must be nice to read all day" (as if!) and the joy that wells up when you find just the right book for the right person. That was my favorite part. Thanks for sharing with us!

  4. I've got to get myself to Houston in order to visit your store. Thank you for the view behind the curtain.

  5. Years ago, a dear friend, Joann McLaughlin, gave me a MBTB tee shirt and encouraged me to subscribe to the MBTB weekly newsletters. Still haven't made it to Houston for a visit, but it will happen, someday.

  6. From sixth grade through high school I volunteered at a library. There was definitely NO time to read! I did learn which books I wanted to borrow and read on my own time.

    I do miss independent bookstores. When I'm on vacation, I try to get to one or two in the town where we vacation. Because the population there swells during the warmer months, I suspect those stores are not able to stay open all year long.

  7. Oh boy, now I really know what I've been missing...I need to get to Houston!

    thanks for a fun and eye-opening post today. Do you all feel optimistic about the future of indie bookstores (I do!)

  8. Sally and John, Welcome to Jungle Red! Loved this post.

    I've always thought it might be fun to work in a bookstore. Now I'm sure. Wishing Houston was on my next itinerary...

  9. What a wonderful Bookstore! When I went to visit, there was a monsoon! It was so rainy and windy, I could not open the door to my cab. And yet, still people came… The atmosphere is so fabulous, and it just felt like being at home. ( A very organized knowledgeable home.) thank you so much for the inside scoop… Something that works so beautifully gas got to be a lot of work!
    And thank you for your patience… You must get some great questions. I'm looking for a book, it's blue, it's about a murder…

  10. Welcome John and Sally! No time to read in a bookstore, just like editors have no time to read on the job. Really! Editors do all the "business" parts of their job doing work time and then edit manuscripts on the weekends....

  11. I LOVED reading this post. I worked at the Elliott Bay Book Company for 5 years after I got out of college. A different world then. No Internet and we cataloged our books in little recipe file boxes. But the essence of the experience was still the same. Wish I could spend a year just touring the indie bookshops of America - that's my idea of heaven!

  12. Next to writing, I've always thought working in a bookstore would be fun. My husband says the idea is more fun than the reality. But I think he's lying. =)

    Never been to Houston, but I do adore my own local indie - Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, PA (we've hosted some of the Reds).

    And yes, if I owned a bookstore, I'd definitely have a store dog.

  13. Murder By the Book is my favorite independent bookstore that I have never been to.

    Why, you ask?

    Because of the people! I count Sally and John as great virtual friends and we are always sharing tips on great new books and various other random topics. (John and I are always sharing our love of Tori Amos, while Sally and I have been know to discuss the most random things enthusiastically). I should say, I have at least met John in person at B'con and hope to encounter Sally soon.

    And let's not forget McKenna Jordan, who has done an incredible job of making Murder By the Book one of the premiere mystery bookstores in the county.

    One day, I will get there in person, but until then, I feel blessed to know these folks and happy to see the indie bookstore world alive and well.

  14. Good Morning, Peeps! To Kim, who commented earlier...yes, the first bookstore I worked we cataloged in a little file box and just had a cash box. No register. Fun times!

  15. And yes, McKenna is why we are there. Great boss, great lover of mysteries!


  17. The homicide call really happened. I still think it was a missed opportunity for John and me.

  18. I love this bookstore. When I go there the atmosphere makes me want to move in. I've read there twice and from now on will be more aware of the amount of work it takes to make author events happen. I'm sorry that I won't be seeing "Miranda" James there anymore. But looking forward to being there in April.

    Thanks for a great post.

    1. I will be in your audience, Terry Shames. Can't wait. I think this will be your fourth mystery from Seventh Street Press, right?

  19. Kim, a book tour of indie bookshops? HEAVEN!!!!!

  20. Murder by the Book sounds like my idea of a perfect bookshop. Even though I know how much work running a retail business is, having worked in a family business from 1976 to 1996, I still would love to work in a bookstore, preferably an independent like Murder by the Book. What a thrill opening cartons of books and having author events would be! I haven't been fortunate enough to visit Murder by the Book, but if I'm ever in Houston, I know what must stop there will be.

    Kim, I've often thought that touring independent booktores would be a grand adventure! I'm going to at least make a concerted effort to visit the ones located in places to which I travel. Of course, the problem is that I always lose myself in a bookstore and come up for air hours later, so other sightseeing might take a hit.

    Thank you Sally and John for a post that fed my bookish hunger.

  21. Thanks for the super warm welcome! We're big fans of the Jungle Reds Gang, and were thrilled when Susan asked us to do this.

    Lucy asked if we feel confident about the future of the indie bookstore, and we do! Two great articles just came out about the growth of the indie.

    One from the NYT:

    And one from Publisher's Weekly:

  22. One of my favorite stores. I always have such a good time there (although I miss Dean these days!)

    But then there isn't a single mystery bookstore where I haven't felt welcome and at home. I'm only sorry that so many of them have had to close.

  23. Just passing thru again. I'm at work. So,I'm off to prepare books to ship to customers and sort books to return! Behind the scenes work. I'll pop back as I can.

  24. I love Murder by the Book!

    I've done two events there - one in my fancy pants! - and both have been wonderful. John and Sally et al. have fabulous customers - smart, dedicated and boy, do they love books.

    It doesn't surprise me that we're actually seeing a resurgence for independent book stores. In Portland, Maine, where we already had two independents, a new one opened up last summer and is doing very well! The Buy Local movement has been boon for bookstores, as people think about what kind of communities they want and intentionally steer their money towards businesses that can keep those communities vital.

    Not to mention the singular customer service you get when you buy books from people who are avid readers themselves. The real difference between big-box bookstores and independents? You go into a big-box store to get the book you know you wanted. In an independent bookstore, you leave with a book you didn't know you wanted until the bookseller told you about it.

  25. This bookstore was on my bucket list as an author and now that I've signed there I'm always devising ways to return. I also love the way Sally or John will place another author's book in my hands at the end of a signing and say, "Don't ask questions, just read this." It's like Christmas. My credit card remains on file.

  26. I'm so happy to see my beloved Murder by the Book here. I have discovered many fantastic books and authors there, both with help from the wonderful staff & just by browsing. I have also gotten to meet some of my favorite authors (Reds included). And to my shame I was once one of those incoherent customers who couldn't remember anything helpful about the book I wanted, and they STILL found it for me.

  27. Lisa, we secretly love those challenges. Sometimes, if we can't figure it out before a customer leaves the store we keep looking because we just NEED to know the answer.

    1. Wonderful look behind the scenes, John and Sally! Y'all do such a great job.

  28. I fondly remember my years working in bookstores in high school and college. Great description of the life.

    And when you find the book with the blue cover, invariably, the cover is orange!

  29. Love, love, love MBTB. I can't count how many of the authors I love were introduced to me by the staff.

    My favorite memory there happened many years ago when a more of the book signings were on weekday afternoons. That meant I'd have to pick my son up from school and bring him with me.

    While I was waiting in line to have the latest Dick Francis book signed, the lady behind my son asked if he'd like her to sign his book. It was Joan Lowery Nixon. He ended up getting another copy of the book for her to sign for his 2nd grade class, too.

    Both authors are gone, but MBTB is with us and larger and with more signings. The readers of the Houston are lucky.

  30. Even if I can't read, I'd love to work in a bookstore. Sounds like such fun getting to meet other readers all day.

    Never been to Houston since I live in CA, but a trip to your store will happen if I ever do.

  31. Oh, how I love Murder By The Book. The staff are not just super nice but so knowledgeable, too. And I suspect they work a whole lot harder than people think, so this was a fun insight to what it's like.

    I'll be down there in April for a conference, and stopping by for sure.

  32. Lucky me, I live in Houston and visit MBTB regularly. I don't know how John, Sally, McKenna, Brenda, et all do it week after week, working constantly. When I tell friends how important this bookstore is on the mystery launch trail, I point out that if a famous author comes to the US from abroad and only hits four stores, one will be Murder by the Book. I wish I'd kept a list of the fabulous authors I've seen at the store and at its special lunches. One of the best days of my life was when my debut mystery launched there in 2013....during a monsoon...and 50 people turned up. A fabulous highlight of Houston.... this incredible indie mystery bookstore.

  33. Yes, that's the thing about a really good indy bookstore — you may go in for the book you want, but the salesperson will somehow (magic?) find you the book you ABSOLUTELY NEED.

  34. That's the best part Susan! Getting readers to try new things is always exciting. I like to find something a little outside of a reader's comfort zone. Not too far removed that they'd hate it, but just different enough that they may discover something new that they love.

    1. That moment at the register, when y'all say, "oh, you're buying this, have you tried that?" :)

  35. I love Murder By The Book. It's such a great bookstore and the book sellers are great! I don't get down there much (I live in the Dallas area -- about a 4 hour drive to Houston). I do order books from them, especially when my favorite authors are signing at the store.

  36. Hi from London, John and Sally!! You know MBTB has been one of my very favorite bookstores since my first book was published lo all those many years ago:-) You guys are the best, and we know how hard you work. There's no bigger treat for an author than signing at your store, and I can't count the number of authors your suggestions have introduced to me.

    And about that blue book...

  37. Hi everybody! I didn't get to check in much this afternoon. We got super busy and not much time to get online. It's been a treat reading all the comments. So, if any of you that haven't been to MBTB,come see us!

  38. I worked for 18 years in a (now-defunct) mystery bookstore and I loved every minute of it. I have visited many mystery shops and I wish every one of them were still in business. I love remembering what customers like and I love turning people on to new authors.
    Ivisitrf Murder By the Book and was totally impressed!Keep it up y'all!

  39. Always great to read about mystery bookstores outside my area. I love visiting Deb at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop near Harrisburg, Pa. At the Craig Johnson booksigning, the bookstore was packed, and it was a rare treat to sit with strangers and talk about mystery novels and life in general. That's the great fun of an indy bookstore.